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5 Problems With The NFL’s National Anthem Protest


At a Friday rally in Alabama, President Donald Trump criticized football players who protest during the national anthem:

Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b-tch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in this country. Because that’s a total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything we stand for.

I know we have freedoms and we have freedom of choice, but it’s still disrespectful.

He went on to say that ratings are down because the game itself has gotten boring, but also because “When people like yourselves turn on television and you see those people taking the knee when they are playing our great national anthem.” He suggested that fans simply leave the stadium when this happens.

In response, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement that said, “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”

Then in a move that should have surprised no one, Sunday became a national anthem protest day around the league. Many players took a knee during the anthem, some stood with raised fists. Entire teams remained in their locker rooms during the national anthem. And Bills running back LeSean McCoy, who was on my fantasy football team years ago when I still cared about the NFL, took the opportunity to stretch out during the national anthem.

Here are five reasons the NFL anthem protests are not going as well as the media would like to think.

1. Vague And Unclear Protest Goals

One of the keys to a good protest is to have a clear goal. If the discussions on Sunday were any indication, nobody is entirely clear what is being protested when athletes kneel during the national anthem. CNN said yesterday’s display was about opposition to Trump:

The opening paragraph in the Los Angeles Times story on the protests said they were about “the relentless vortex of controversy that surrounds President Trump, as players from London to New England to Carson knelt or linked arms Sunday while others stayed in the locker room during the national anthem.” Later the story said the protests during the national anthem were meant to “draw attention to racism and social injustice.”

The national anthem protests began last year, before Donald Trump was elected the first time, when then-professional quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee for a variety of reasons.

Kaepernick, who has sat and knelt during the anthem, has said he refused to honor a song or ‘show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.’ He also referenced the shootings of black men by police as one of reasons for his stance.

As for the latter claim, Mary Katharine Ham noted on CNN yesterday, disapproval of Black Lives Matter has gone up from 20 percent in 2016 to nearly 60 percent in the August Harvard-Harris poll.

Even in Kaepernick’s lengthy press conference last year, it was a bit unclear what the goals of the protest action are, or what it would take to declare victory and cease protesting. At that press conference, Kaepernick unfortunately wore a T-shirt of photos commemorating Malcolm X meeting Fidel Castro. As the better half wrote last year:

The biggest problem here is that Kaepernick is seemingly unaware of Castro’s legacy. Aside from Castro dragooning and executing Christians and gays, Castro’s record on racial justice is decidedly not ‘woke’, as the Internet likes to say. While Cuba’s legacy of racism predates Castro, it’s safe to say overt racism against individuals of African ancestry there remains far more pronounced than it is in the United States. In fact, racism is kind of an unstated official policy.

In other Kaepernick fashion news, he also wore socks with pictures of pigs dressed like police officers. In any case, if the goal was an end to police brutality against black men, the movement seems to have gone off the rails a bit. Surely lack of awareness is not the problem regarding police officers and the killing of unarmed black men. What is the protest movement accomplishing other than increasing opposition to Black Lives Matter and bothering fans?

2. The NFL’s Utter Inconsistency

Goodell and NFL owners were adamant this weekend that players had the right to express themselves without fear of any retaliation. This even though there are rules that the NFL could apply to stop protests of the national anthem. Yet, as David Marcus wrote last year:

After the tragic murders of five Dallas police officers in July, the Dallas Cowboys asked the NFL if players could wear a decal on their helmets commemorating the officers’ sacrifice. In this case, the NFL did not support its players when they wanted to see change in society. When the Cowboys wanted to send the message that police officers should not be hunted and assassinated, the NFL gave a clear answer: no.

There were rules the NFL chose to apply to stop the wearing of decals to commemorate the murder of five Dallas police officers working to protect the people at an organized protest of police brutality.

The NFL fines players for dancing in the end zone. It threatens fines for 9/11 tributes. It shows leniency for other issues, such as domestic violence, but it needs to show more consistency about on-field behavior.

3. The Terms of Debate Couldn’t Be Worse For the NFL

The media were thrilled by the protests on Sunday, which they perceived to be against Trump. But the way many Americans viewed these protests was not nearly so favorable as it was to people in New York and DC newsrooms.

Some of the national anthem protesters took their knees before a game in London, on foreign soil. The players followed that by standing for “God Save The Queen.” If you don’t know what’s problematic with that show of respect for a foreign country’s anthem while protesting your own on foreign soil, I doubt it could be explained to you.

For many people, in part because of the vagueness of the protest goals, these national anthem knees simply come off like people being jerks about the national anthem because they don’t like Trump. Which, it turns out, is not a great way to get the public on one’s side.

As president-elect, Trump proposed jail for flag-burners. We barely remember the outrage cycle that ensued on the part of the media, because in fact punishment for flag burning is far more popular than people in newsrooms realize. In his rally, Trump positioned himself, and his supporters, on the side of the flag and patriotism. This wasn’t difficult for him to do, because many Americans have been viewing these as protests against a country they love.

For the NFL owners to take the bait and up the ante was not the wisest response to Trump’s rhetoric on Friday.

4. The NFL Can’t Afford the Struggle

The NFL is facing a ratings slide, with much less fan engagement than they’d like. While many of the league’s problems have nothing to do with politics, the anthem protests are causing some problems, according to a July CBS Sports story:

According to a recent survey from J.D. Power, national anthem protests that originated with Colin Kaepernick led a list of reasons people tuned out of NFL games last season. The poll consisted of 9,200 people who attended a football, basketball or hockey game, and asked them if they tuned into fewer games and why.

Per the poll, 26 percent of viewers cited the protests as the reason. Coming in second, 24 percent said that it was because of the league’s off-field image issues, such as domestic abuse, and general game delays, such as penalties. Twenty percent said that it was because of excessive commercials…

The league also faces problems with the high levels of brain injury players face:

Frontline reported on numbers from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University, where researchers studied the brains of 165 people who played football at the high school, college, or professional level. They found evidence of CTE in 131 of them—79 percent. Of the brains studied, 91 of them belonged to former NFL players, and 87 of those 91 (96 percent) had signs of CTE.

5. The Media Fan Flames, Stupidly

Another problem for the NFL is that a fight between celebrity football players and a celebrity president is ratings gold. So expect nonstop coverage that inflames the issue in a way that benefits the activist extremes and the president, but few other people.

Journalists went to their favorite Trump line of attack:

Yes, because if there is one thing that we know about Trump, it’s that he never criticizes any white people. He is not known for insulting Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, or Megyn Kelly. Nosiree.

There are so many legitimate lines of critique against President Trump, including that he sure seems to pick culture war battles when he’s failing politically. Or that it’s untoward for a president to weigh in on employment and speech issues, though recently we seem to have presidents who do just that. Even on that score, the media tend to be ignorant of any problem associated with the immediate past president, as some of these exchanges indicated:

Imagine a very religious group of Catholic nuns called the Little Sisters of the Poor had to engage in a costly seven-year legal battle to keep the Obama administration from forcing them to pay for abortions against their conscience or pay fines that would end their work. Imagine that. It shouldn’t be difficult to imagine since they’re still waging this battle on account of onerous regulatory mandates from the Obama administration. Of course, this violation of First Amendment freedoms didn’t include a cuss word, so I guess it’s less newsworthy.

The president is exploiting fan disappointment with the NFL and a general public dissatisfaction with divisive protests that lack clear goals. Despite the fame and wealth of players and owners, the NFL is not as well positioned here as its media defenders seem to think.